If Jennifer Down’s acclaimed 2016 debut novel Our Magic Hour was a love letter to Melbourne, her new collection Pulse Points (Text Publishing) is a letter to love itself.
Down covers a lot of ground in this collection: the titular opening story, in which a couple fail to save a man and maybe themselves; a sister’s pilgrimage to Aokigahara (Japan’s ‘suicide forest’); a father and a daughter trying to find their way back to one another. Fundamentally, they are studies of human experience more than they are plot-driven stories, of the way we are connected and disconnected. Down demonstrates self-awareness of this theme – in ‘Peaks’, one character asks of another, ‘What are you reading?’ and the reader responds, ‘It’s lots of short stories…mostly about sad men.’
As in Our Magic Hour, Down’s prose is precise, deliberate. Not a clause on any page of this book is anything less than resolute. It is almost businesslike even in its poetic phrasing, knowing exactly where it intends to take the story. And in that way, it is hugely successful.
The stories themselves reflect the title; they are heartbeats. Each one finishes before the end is expected, sometimes more character sketch than fully realised narrative. For the most part, it’s startling and discomforting – in a good way. The characters are always well developed and the paths they travel are both ordinary and interesting at once. There are so many different people in here, and it is a pleasure to meet them; Down has a wonderful knack for drawing a whole life in few words.
There are so many different people in here, and it is a pleasure to meet them.
In ‘Coarsegold’, two women drift apart from a future they both thought they wanted, while ‘Vox Clamantis’ – a story about broken hearts and a road trip across the US – moved me so violently I put the book down and couldn’t look at it again for a week. Doomed, enormous love – is there any more human an experience?
In the carpeted hall that led from one to the other, we stood opposite each other, and he kissed me with his devastated, expensive wine mouth. He held my face in his hands. He said: ‘You were great.’ (‘Vox Clamantis’)
Occasionally the abruptness becomes a little peculiar; I found myself anticipating the unresolvedness of each situation, though stories rarely finished where I thought they might (for example, ‘Vaseline’ – in which a girl comes to understand class and violence and, pervasively, love – ends in a place almost alarmingly separate from where it begins). Parts of the collection feel like a test to see how much of a new direction can be taken without losing the shape of the current story.
He began to cry. I heard him sucking in air through his teeth. (‘Aokigahara’)
Whether this is an experiment, a stylistic choice, or a happy coincidence is hard to say. There are stories that feel more finished than the others. In ‘Dogs’, we pick up the story in the middle and finish it in the middle. In ‘Convalescene’, there’s the beginning (girl loves boy) and the climax (girl leaves boy) but no middle. These are glimpses, and although it’s not true of every piece, often a glimpse is all that’s required. There is an impressive breadth to the experiences Down conveys, through friendship, love, longing, disconnection – in the beginning, I thought this was in spite of the pieces’ lengths and severed ends, but actually, it might be because of them.
These are glimpses, and although it’s not true of every piece, often a glimpse is all that’s required.
In Down’s hands, the act of being human, and especially of breathing and loving another human, is so constrained and elegant.
In the train we took seats side by side. Lewis touched the back of his hand to mine. Our knuckles kissed lightly. (‘Convalescence’)
Here is youth. Even in stepping back – where relationships are breaking down, or grief is overwhelming, or people are literally dying – the stories look forward. There is always a hint of something new coming, of more being ahead. The dialogue – which is convincing and often deeply affecting – is fresh-faced, earnest, buoyant, but the same time, there’s a thread of melancholy, a kind of futility that only comes with having so much time ahead of you, and knowing it will mostly be wasted.
I had no friends. I had only them: Tommy and Sigrid. I was the spectator, the sister; the joyful witness to their Great Passion. (‘Aokigahara’)
The characters in this collection seem to exist outside of their brief appearances. It would be easy to imagine Down had written much longer pieces, and simply plucked from them the most important fragments.
[Stories] hang together easily, drawing the reader in to each contained world without quite removing them from the one before.
As a collection, Pulse Points is beautiful. It’s a bit like opening a sketchbook and brushing a hand against all the charcoal nudes inside. The characters are exposed, the plots minimal. They hang together easily, drawing the reader in to each contained world without quite removing them from the one before. And by finishing with ‘Coarsegold’ – the only story that feels told fully – the threads are tied. For a book of incompleteness, it feels resolutely ended.
Down has insight into the human condition beyond her years and a talent for writing realism in unwaveringly sharp prose. In Pulse Points she uses these skills to make a statement about the many different hearts beating in the one universe, however unrelated they may seem. As with Our Magic Hour, readers will feel safe in the hands of such a skilful writer, one able to turn her awareness of the human condition into measured and universal storytelling.